Why do people like spicy food? Perhaps, it’s a question you’ve never pondered but if you really stop and think about it, it’s quite a bizarre phenomena. What is it about spicy food, which can often be a painful (and sometimes very painful) experience, that is attractive – especially, considering that our perception of the spice is meant to discourage us from eating them.
Studies have confirmed that apart from the ‘ole Chinese Tree Shrew, human beings are the only mammal on the planet willing to deliberately seek out spicy food. And this is only because spicy peppers are readily available to them in their natural habitat.
While experts agree that spicy food goes back as far as Mayan times, it is trending at a notable rate in modern times. According to a recent study conducted by Kalsec, consumer interest in hot and spicy ingredients has increased 10 years in a row. That’s right, turns out that spicy foods are… well… heating up right now.
And no longer are simple heat levels interesting to consumers. The same Kalsec study found two macro trends emerging: 1) a desire for more spicy foods and 2) more refined palates in spiciness. But what is this all about? Why do people actually like spicy food? Sure, there have been plenty of studies to show the benefits of capsicum but is there a point at which it is too much? It is hard to imagine that is is natural (or healthy) for people to be consuming hot sauces with 9 million Scoville Heat Units.
Is it possible that our contemporary appetites for spicy foods are out of sync with our natural tendencies? Is it possible that we desire spicier and spicier food because our senses are being dulled by modern technology? By and overstimulating society?
Let’s keep reading to learn: why do people like spicy food.
Why Do People Like Spicy Food?
There are many angles in which we can approach the question. For one, we can explore all the health benefits that would attract people to spicy food. Another explanation could be related to culture and climate – that spicy food preferences are a product of ecological conditions. Lastly, we can observe it from a more sinister angle, that people are, in fact, consuming higher levels of spicy food because they are addicted or seeking an escape.
Let’s take a deeper look as to some reasons that people like spicy food:
1. Because Of Our Bio-evolutionary History
A book entitled, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, suggests that consumption of spicy foods is actually a cultural adaptation against food-borne pathogens (particularly those found in meat) since many spices have antimicrobial properties. The author points out that spicy foods are especially common in countries with hotter climates. This is not a coincidence as bacteria infestation was a greater problem in those places prior to the invention of refrigeration.
This is consistent with a study done by two biologists (Billing and Sherman 1998) who analyzed over 4500 recipes from all over the world to provide evidence that there is a correlation between climate and spice use.
Given this correlation, it is possible that families who used spice were less likely to fall victim to disease. Over time, this shaped food preferences of people living in hotter climates.
2. Because Spicy Foods Are Healthy
Perhaps people are increasingly drawn to spicy foods because of their health benefits. One paper published back in 1999 answers the question in its own headline: “Darwinian Gastronomy: Why We Use Spices: Spices taste good because they are good for us“. Turns out, there are quite a few health benefits of spicy foods:
- A study carried out by Harvard and China National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, found that if you eat a spicy food every day for six or seven days per week, your mortality rate lowers by 14 percent.
- Data from studies worldwide shows that spices, can raise your metabolism resting rate as well as reduce your appetite.
- Spicy food can combat inflation, reduce intestinal gas, cure diarrhea and act as a natural remedy for cramps. Oh and may even help in fighting cancer cells.
- Spicy foods potentially promote a healthy heart by dilating the blood vessel to aid in blood flow. This can can lead to a decrease in blood pressure.
- Spicy foods can mitigates migraines.
Perhaps as more information like this continues to surface, more and more people will be attracted to spicy food.
3. Because People Are Getting Addicted to Spicy Foods
It is clear that some people can enjoy spicy food a little too much. Sometimes event to the point that it looks ridiculous. Don’t believe me? Just watch this video:
If that doesn’t look like a potentially unhealthy addiction, then I don’t know what does. But why are people consuming such extreme levels of spice these days?
It is no secret that spicy can cause pituitary gland and hypothalamus to release endorphins. These trigger happy chemicals give you an instant feeling of pleasure, which of course can be addictive. Perhaps people crave the spiciness of food just the same way they crave something sweet or salty? Or maybe they are looking for a way to escape, a brief relief, from ever increasing rates of anxiety and depression. Or maybe they just feel something in an era of intense overstimulation. Perhaps, such a bombardment of stimulus in the smart phone era is actually dulling our senses, giving up a higher tolerance to spice.
This would be consistent with findings from a 1980 publication titled, “The nature and acquisition of a preference for chili pepper by humans.” The study conducted argued that eating spicy foods is a way toy with danger, similar to skydiving or riding a roller coaster. “While we do understand, intellectually, that we are not necessarily in real danger, our bodies don’t make the distinction. The physiological effects of being in danger and/or on fire, such as the rush produced by adrenaline or the feel-good sensation produced by the release of endorphins in our system, are still genuine” (Rozin, Shiller).
Ironically, while India has one of the strongest spicy food traditions on the planet, its main religion, Hinduism, actually condemns spicy foods for its addictive properties. Like Buddhists, Hindus believe that food affects both body and mind. Food is a source of the body’s chemistry, which affects one’s consciousness and emotions. They consider spicy food, Rajasic, which means it produces strong emotional qualities, passions and restlessness in the mind.
In The End, We Don’t Really Know
So why do people like spicy foods? Well, we still don’t really know. In fact, it may never be fully possible to comprehensively answer this question. First off, everyone is different. Perhaps some people like spicy foods because they grew up eating it. Perhaps, others can more acutely sense the health benefits of capsicum. And of course, some people are chasing the thrill of consuming extreme spice. And none of these potential explanations are mutually exclusive.
Ultimately, human beings are complex, and so are the forces that drive our preferences. However, while we probably won’t ever be able to conclusive explain this behavior, it is certainly a trend worth paying attention to. My view is that the recent uptick in the appetite for spicy food in the west is directly connected to the impact of contemporary technologies. But what do I know?
Want To Find Out If You Like Spicy Foods?
Made with the notorious ghost pepper, it is far the spiciest hot sauce we have ever made! Of course, that doesn’t mean we skimped on delicious flavor. The freshly ground chipotle powder adds a smokey dimension that masterfully neutralizes the ghost pepper spice. While there are certainly spicier foods out there, this is a safe way to dip your toes in the ever-expanding universe of spicy foods.